Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Area Legal Aid Organizations Face Cutbacks

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Area Legal Aid Organizations Face Cutbacks

Article excerpt

Last year, 3,500 poor or retired people in Oklahoma County had a civil dispute that they took to Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma.

They included a 31-year-old woman who wanted a divorce after her husband beat her unconscious and an 85-year-old who lost her wheelchair after a consignment dealer kept it.

But if a proposal now before Congress is approved, another thousand or so poor or retired Oklahoma City residents probably would go without legal help each year.

A spending cut initiative now before Congress would cut spending by $100 billion. Among the ideas on how to do that is the elimination of Legal Services Corp. Doing away with the agency, which was founded during the Nixon administration to provide funding for civil legal services to the poor, would save the federal government $1.6 billion a year.

Three nonprofit organizations in Oklahoma get funding from Legal Services Corp.: Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma, Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Legal Services.

Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma, which serves Oklahoma County and 47 other counties, gets 87 percent of its funding from the federal government.

It also gets funding from United Way, county bar associations, the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, area agencies on aging, the City of Oklahoma City and individuals.

Eliminating Legal Services Corp. probably would result in a skeletal crew in the Oklahoma City office and more reliance on the some 400 Oklahoma County attorneys who do pro bono work for Legal Aid, said Marilyn Staats, managing attorney for the Oklahoma City law center.

Staats believes many poor Oklahoma City residents would endure, rather than try to end, bad situations because they can't afford a private practice attorney's fees.

Cynthia McClintock wanted to end her 13-year marriage and get custody of her three children, now 2, 8 and 12. But when she went to a private attorney she was told she would have to pay $500 before a single paper was filed in court, she said.

She was a grocery store baker at the time and didn't have the $500. A friend told her about Legal Aid. Staff attorney Jane Pennington took her case.

McClintock not only got a divorce and custody of her three children, she didn't have to pay court filing costs. Those were assessed against her estranged husband.

McClintock said she was "scared to death" of her husband and still is haunted by his memory. Today he lives in another state.

"I want Legal Aid to stay around. If it weren't for (Pennington) I wouldn't have been able to get my children. I don't know what I would have done. If you don't have a lot of money and you don't have a good attorney, you're stuck out in the cold."

The attorneys who manage Legal Aid fear that many prospective clients would be out in the cold _ literally as well as metaphorically.

One priority of Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma is "income maintenance" cases, those in which very poor people are denied public assistance or are in danger of losing that assistance.

The center also handles many housing cases, among them people evicted from public housing.

One in four cases handled by Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma last year involved either housing or public assistance snags.

In cases of applicants losing or failing to obtain welfare, food stamps or Social Security disability benefits, the problem is often that the applicant or recipient is mentally ill or illiterate, Staats said.

In those cases, they can't fill out the forms, obtain the documentation they need to prove eligibility or read their mail to find out what they need to do. Legal Aid's role is to help them fill out the forms or obtain the records they need.

In other public assistance cases the law center has handled, caseworkers made mistakes because the regulations are so complicated, Staats said. …

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